One of the hardest parts of training camp for a coach and general manager is narrowing down a roster to the 23 guys that will give the team the best chance to win. Although it would appear to be a simple process, it often requires calculated moves based on a player’s waiver-eligibility and contract status among other factors.
In year’s past, salary and tenure were two criteria that weighed heavy on the minds of those in charge of these personnel decisions. Nowadays, the focus is more on whether or not a player fits the mold of what the coach is trying to do. As is the case in Philadelphia, veteran defenseman Andrew MacDonald has found himself as the odd man out, a move that surprised some throughout the league as the 29-year-old and his $5 million annual salary will now begin the season in the AHL.
Prior to the start of camp, the Flyers had a logjam of one-way defensive contracts–eight of them to be exact.
While it wouldn’t be odd to carry that many defensemen on the roster, the Flyers preference from the very beginning was to ideally carry seven and keep two extra forwards. Mark Streit, Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto and Evgeny Medvedev were locks to make the club. That left Radko Gudas, Luke Schenn, Brandon Manning and MacDonald to compete for the remaining three spots.
The ‘Final Four’ each had something to prove to the team as they made their case for a roster spot. Gudas was coming off of an injury and was the throw-in from the Braydon Coburn trade. Schenn was the stay-at-home, physical defender who would seem to be somewhat of an outcast in coach Dave Hakstol’s new system. Manning was the least experienced of the bunch with only a few handful of NHL games under his belt. Lastly, MacDonald was the one with the largest contract who was both underwhelming and unable to play consistent two-way hockey.
In the end, it was the move that may have been least expected that ended up making the most sense.
The obvious choice for arm-chair general managers would have been to simply waive Manning and stash him in Lehigh Valley with the AHL’s Phantoms. That’s what the Flyers of old would have done.
Instead, Manning put together a strong preseason that impressed the coaching staff and higher-level decision makers so much so that they were unwilling to risk losing him on the waiver wire, especially after the Minnesota Wild had already claimed forward Chris Porter as the club attempted to send him to the AHL. GM Ron Hextall and Co. could have opted to send center Scott Laughton to the minors and carry eight defenders to start the season since he did not need to pass through waivers, however, he made an equally big impression and was considered one of the club’s top-12 forwards.
With last ditch efforts to pull off a trade, Hextall made the decision that never would have been in season’s past – he waived one of the highest-paid players on the team, willing to take the cap hit in order to field a team that he believes has the best chance to succeed.
As Jeff Neiburg points out, Manning now has a chance to earn yet another contract by being a consistent player at the NHL level. For his part, Manning understands what his role is and knows that if he wants to remain with the big club, he’ll need to continue contributing at the highest level.
“It sucks. Mac’s a great guy, but, obviously, that opened the door for me. I wouldn’t say it’s a relief. I think this is what I’ve been working for, and this is where I want to be, so I think I’m happy to be here for now, and I just want to stick around.”
Along with Manning, Gudas and Schenn also did enough in camp to warrant hanging around.
Through all of this, there is MacDonald, the defenseman once considered a core member of the team after signing a $30 million extension following his arrival from New York in the middle of the 2013-14 season. Now, he will have the dubious distinction of being the highest-paid player in the American Hockey League, just above Edmonton defenseman Nikita Nikitin who was also waived by the Oilers.
Despite a vote of confidence by Hextall, the fact remains that based on performance, MacDonald did not put himself in position to win a spot on the opening day roster. Whereas salary alone would have been a big enough factor for him to stay in the past, this is clearly a new era in which the best 23 guys will be given a chance to help a club that has missed the playoffs on two of the last three seasons.
According to Hextall, he is convinced that MacDonald will back on the big club’s roster at some point this season and he is most likely correct. The rigors of an 82-game season alone make it difficult to believe that the club will make it by without needing a call-up from time-to-time. Though fitting his salary back on to the books will be tricky, MacDonald is the obvious call-up candidate defensively despite some fans clamoring for the promotion of prospect Shayne Gostisbehere who still needs to work on his defensive game at the professional level.
What’s done is done and the best that MacDonald can do now is work hard in Lehigh Valley and await his turn to be thrust back into the Flyers lineup, which could always end up being sooner rather than later. Just last season, ex-Flyer Braydon Coburn was injured in the season opener in Boston, allowing Schultz the opportunity to dress in his absence. Not only did Schultz end up being one of the team’s top defenders last year, he earned himself a contract extension and now is opening the 2015-16 campaign on the top defensive pairing.
Hextall insists that his club is a playoff-caliber team that is capable of making some noise in the Metropolitan Division. If the general manager’s brazen roster moves are any indication, he may just be right.
What are your thoughts on the Andrew MacDonald demotion? Let me know in the comments and/or on twitter @healedbyhockey